2017 Worlds Women’s 10,000 Preview: Almaz Ayana vs. Tirunesh Dibaba in a Battle of Ethiopian Legends

by LetsRun.com
July 30, 2017

Here’s how strange the women’s 10,000 has become: neither of the two favorites have raced at all on the track in 2017 and American Emily Infeld is the top returner. Like we said, it’s strange.

On paper, this figures to be a battle between 10,000 world record holder Almaz Ayana and 5,000 world record Tirunesh Dibaba, both of Ethiopia. Both women medalled at the Olympics last year in the fastest race in history, clocking times that put them #1 and #4 on the all-time list. Another battle between the two in London could be epic.

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There are plenty of questions, though. Is Ayana, who hasn’t raced in 11 months, fully healthy? How will Dibaba handle a return to the track after running 2:17:56 at the London Marathon in April? Can Molly Huddle, who at 32 may be competing in her final season on the track, make amends for her finish-line gaffe two years ago and finally win a medal? We dig into those queries below.

Race Time: 3:10 p.m. ET, Saturday, August 5

2016 Olympic results
1. Almaz Ayana, Ethiopia 29:17.45
2. Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya 29:32.53
3. Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia 29:42.56
4. Alice Aprot Nawowuna, Kenya 29:53.51
5. Betsy Saina, Kenya 30:07.78

2017’s fastest performers (among women entered)
1. Dera Dida, Ethiopia 30:56.48
2. Yasemin Can, Turkey 31:18.20
3. Desi Jisa Mokonin, Bahrain 31:19.00
4. Molly Huddle, USA 31:19.86
5. Emily Infeld, USA 31:22.67

What Is Going on in Ethiopia?

On June 10, Ethiopia held its World Championship trials for the women’s 10,000 in Hengelo, The Netherlands. Here were the top three finishers:

1. Gelete Burka, 30:40.87
2. Senbere Teferi, 30:41.68
3. Belaynesh Oljira, 30:44.57
4. Dera Dida, 30:56.48

Here’s Ethiopia’s 10,000 squad for Worlds:

Almaz Ayana
Tirunesh Dibaba
Dera Dida

Welcome to Ethiopia, where the trials are made up and the places don’t matter. Not that violence is an answer, but we imagine some fans have some sympathy for the Ethiopian steepler who punched a coach when he wasn’t named to the team despite finishing third in the Trials.

We don’t want to totally bash Ethiopia here. Ayana and Dibaba are two of the greatest 10,000 runners in history. If they’re healthy and fit, they provide Ethiopia with the greatest shot at medalling in London. We totally get why they are on the team. But to hold a trials race and select none of the top three finishers to the team is outrageous. Teferi is running the 5k in London, so we can understand leaving her off. But to take Dera Dida over Gelete Burka and Belaynesh Oljira is crazy, particularly when you consider both Burka (2015 silver) and Oljira (2013 bronze) have medalled in this race recently while the 20-year-old Dida has never competed in a global track championship, not even at the junior level. Unless Burka is injured and declined a spot (Burka is the only one to have raced since Hengelo – she was 12th in the Monaco 3k), we feel for her. (Update: She isn’t injured. She was just left off the team and isn’t happy about it).

Again, it’s hard to argue against leaving off Ayana, who is both the world record holder and the reigning Olympic champion. But Ethiopia is also placing a lot of trust in her considering Ayana hasn’t raced since September 2016. Ayana was injured earlier this year, causing her to scratch from Diamond League appearances in Shanghai in May and Rome in June. Her agent Jos Hermens told us that Ayana is healthy and has been training well, but it’s impossible to say exactly how fit she is right now.

We know more about Dibaba’s fitness, and though all three races she’s run in 2017 have been on the road, they’ve all gone exceptionally well. She ran 66:50 at the RAK Half Marathon in February and followed it up with a magnificent 2:17:56 marathon in London to become just the third woman ever under 2:18. Most recently, she ran 31:03 on the roads for 10k at the Great Manchester Run 10K on May 28 to win by over two minutes.

Unless Ayana is close to 100%, Dibaba should win this race. She’s arguably the greatest female distance runner of all time, and her specialty has been the 10,000, where she’s won three World Championship and two Olympic titles. Until last year, she had never lost a 10,000-meter race (she had been 11-0) but she still ran a 12-second PR in the Olympic final to earn the bronze where it took a freaking world record to beat her. Dibaba hasn’t raced on the track this year, but we’re willing to overlook that considering she ran 2:17:56 (which would have been even faster if she hadn’t literally come to a stop in the final miles as she battled a stomach issue).

The Kenyan team took a hit when defending champion/Olympic silver medalist Vivian Cheruiyot moved up to the roads this year (4th in London in 2:23:50), but their squad is still fearsome. Alice Aprot was fourth at the Olympics and ran 29:53 in that race, good for #5 all-time and even more impressive when you consider she led the first 13 laps (she went out in 14:46 before slowing to 15:07 for her second 5k). But Aprot may not even be the best Kenyan in the race; she was only third at the World Championship Trials in June, finishing 20 seconds behind the winner.

The two women who beat Aprot in that race were Agnes Tirop and Irene Cheptai, who crossed within four-tenths of a second of one another (Tirop won). Neither has a particularly fast PR when compared to the Ethiopians — Cheptai’s best is 31:15 from Payton Jordan last year while Tirop’s 31:56 at the trials (at altitude) was her fastest ever. But both women are clearly capable of running significantly faster as their main accomplishments have come on the grass: Tirop was the World Cross Country champ in 2015, while Cheptai won World XC this year. And considering Cheptai beat Aprot in that race in Uganda (Cheptai won in 31:57, Aprot was 2nd in 32:01 and Tirop was 5th in 32:32), we’d expect her to be capable of running close to 30:00 in ideal conditions. Her coach, Renato Canova told us in Uganda she definitely could go sub-30:30.

That kind of fitness may be enough to medal, and it’s possible one of them could challenge Dibaba for the win (though if Ayana is in 29:17 shape again, she’s not losing). Dibaba has been running great this year, but a 2:17 marathon doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s in better 10,000 shape right now than she was in Rio last year. Meanwhile, it is possible that one of the Kenyans is fitter than Aprot was last year, when she finished one spot and nine seconds behind Dibaba (and may have been closer had she run more even splits/not led a big chunk). But that’s a lot of conditionals. Chances are that one of the Kenyans scoops up a medal (or two, depending on Ayana’s status) but the gold goes to an Ethiopian.

Outside of the Africans and the Americans (which we’ll get to in a minute), no other country has medalled in this event since Great Britain’s Jo Pavey in 2007. That streak is likely to continue this year, but Turkey’s Kenyan-born Yasemin Can, who was 7th in Rio last year and ran a 5k PR of 14:36 in Rome in June, could sneak in for third.

The Americans

Can Huddle overcome the disappointment of Beijing 2015?

Two years ago, after handing the bronze medal in Beijing to teammate Emily Infeld, Molly Huddle offered a frank assessment of her future medal hopes.

“I blew it, pretty much,” Huddle said. “That kind of race doesn’t come around a lot and the Olympics are usually really fast from the gun, so, I’m old, so I’m probably not going to get another one of those. It’s frustrating.”

Unfortunately for Huddle, she was dead-on. Last year’s Olympic final was the fastest women’s 10,000 ever run and even though Huddle ran wonderfully (an American record of 30:13), she finished in sixth place, over 30 seconds out of the medals. Huddle is now 32 years old, and while she remains a force on the track domestically, grinding the field into submission at USAs to win her third straight national title, the field at Worlds is vastly improved from the one she faced in 2015. In Ayana, Dibaba and Aprot, this year’s field contains three of the five fastest women in history, each of whom has a PR 19+ seconds faster than Huddle’s. If those three are on their game, Huddle’s chances of a medal are close to zero.

In terms of quality, this field is somewhere between 2015 Worlds and the 2016 Olympics (from which Huddle is the #4 returner). And if you go by Huddle’s 2017 results, she’s in similar shape to when she almost medalled two years ago. In 2015, she ran 68:31 at the NYC Half, 14:50 at the BAA 5K, and won USAs by 3 seconds. This year, she ran 68:19 at the NYC Half, 14:56 at the BAA 5K and won USAs by 3 seconds.

The Americans have a pretty good history in this race as well. Kara Goucher medalled in 2007, Shalane Flanagan medalled in 2008 and Infeld medalled in 2015. And if the pace goes slow — as it did in 2015 — that could open the door even wider for an American medal. But is Huddle really going to beat Cheptai (the World XC champ) and Tirop, who has run 14:33 this year (Huddle’s PR is 14:42) and have one of the sub-30:00 women bomb? That’s an awful lot to ask.

As for the other Americans, Emily Infeld and Emily Sisson, we don’t expect them to factor. And yes, we realize we said the same thing about Infeld in 2015 and she wound up with the U.S.’s only distance medal. But while Infeld has been running well this year, most recently clocking a 10k PR of 14:56 in Heusden on July 22, the top three women in this race are all capable of running two 14:56’s back-to-back. Unless the race goes super slow again, Infeld will likely finish closer to her Olympic place (11th) than her place in Beijing (3rd). Sisson has had a great season, but figures to be overmatched by this field. A top-10 finish would be a good day in her global championship debut.

LRC prediction: 1) Dibaba 2) Ayana 3) Tirop

Ayana has the highest upside, but Dibaba is a stud and we don’t have as many doubts about her fitness. Tirop has been a boss on the track this year (14:33/win at Kenyan Trials) so we’ll take her for the third medal.

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Talk about the 10,000s on our fan forum: MB: Official pre-race men’s and women’s 10k discussion thread – Can Mo Farah and Tirunes Dibaba add to their greatness?